Alex Wagner might be jousting with California Gov. Gavin Newsom or delving into the topic of migrants diverted to Martha’s Vineyard.
Or she could be standing in the middle of a forest in Australia, guiding reality show contestants toward their next challenge to win a pot of money.
Such is the dichotomy of Wagner, the longtime journalist who returned to MSNBC in August with “Alex Wagner Tonight,” sliding into Rachel Maddow’s coveted 9 p.m. EDT anchor slot four nights a week (Maddow continues to host on Mondays).
Wagner, 44, is also hosting “The Mole,” Netflix’s reboot of ABC's 2001-08 series that was initially steered by a pre-CNN Anderson Cooper.
The first five installments of the 10-episode reality competition arrive Friday (the rest are due Oct. 14 and Oct. 21) with a dozen contestants; among them is a designated “mole,” whose job is to sabotage the group’s attempts to win challenges – requiring physical prowess and mental acuity – and money. After each mission, contestants take a 20-question quiz about who they think is the mole. The player with the fewest correct answers is eliminated.
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The ever-industrious Wagner, who previously anchored “Now With Alex Wagner” on MSNBC from 2011-15, is also a panelist/host/contributor to Showtime’s political docuseries “The Circus.” But her current scheduling commitments prevent her from participating in that show's new season – at least for now.
“I would love to go back sometime,” she says with a sigh. “Maybe make a cameo.”
Wagner, amiable and astute in conversation, talks about returning to MSNBC for her “new car smell” show; balancing a high-profile journalism career with family (she and her husband, chef/nutrition adviser Sam Kass, are parents to two young sons); and why she thinks “The Mole” is so smart.
Question: You filled a rather popular chair on MSNBC. Did you do much consulting with Rachel?
Answer: Rachel has been such a supporter and so generous with her time, and more than anything, she spent 15 years establishing an incredibly high quality hour of TV. I feel greatly indebted to her. I feel weird talking about what she told me – that’s the stuff of a personal relationship. But she’s an amazing presence at the network.
You said to Stephen Colbert, “It’s an exciting time to be a journalist and a distressing time to be an American.” How do you keep from getting overwhelmed by the second part to do the first part well?
On some level, it’s a constant balance between intellectual and emotional. I try to stay grounded. My family is important to me, which in some ways makes it more distressing. But my No. 1 job is as a mom, and everything springs from that. Everyone who is a mom or has a mom understands you have to be strong and resilient and loving, and that has helped me navigate the pressures and the stresses of chronicling these really turbulent times in America. It is hard, though. Rachel told me to some degree it feels like you’re sitting for a final exam every night. You have to absorb a ton of info to prepare, even if you’re just asking the questions, and understand a lot of things on a granular level.
You are a female Asian American hosting a primetime show. Do you hear from viewers about being a role model?
People in the Asian American community have been really supportive and excited. It’s bittersweet, because there are so few Asian Americans (in the media). I’m proud of the diversity of the channel, and it’s about time. I feel a huge debt of gratitude to all who have come before me. Without the Connie Chungs, there is no Alex Wagner.
OK, let’s move on to “The Mole.” Did you know who the mole was from the beginning?
No, I went in blind. It was the right call, so you have genuine interactions and ask the questions you’re supposed to be asking. It actually is reality and you want to preserve that suspense.
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Did you ever talk to Anderson Cooper about his time on the original?
It was so shrouded in mystery that I couldn’t talk to anybody. We weren’t supposed to refer to it by its name, so alas, I didn’t. Maybe once it airs. We have a strange set of things in common.
The show seems smarter than the average reality production. What appealed to you about it?
It’s really smart. It’s also confusing because it’s so smart. On its face it’s about trust, and that’s the central quest to be addressed. Once you understand the rules of the game, you realize the degrees to which there are bluffs and double bluffs. It’s mental chess. I don’t watch a lot of reality TV myself, but this was really sharp and different.
You and the contestants get to hang out in some nice places, but you're also in a prison and a jungle. Did you ever have a why-did-I sign-up-for-this moment?
No, honestly. We were on a tight shooting schedule, so there were some late nights. But the hardest part was eliminating the players. I love the cast. They’re all great, enthusiastic, awesome Americans. There were goodbyes I felt really bad about and moments I was in disbelief and almost angry about.
Filming took place in Australia in summer 2021. How did you work it into your other obligations?
The schedule just lined up. The biggest issue was COVID. I think it was the Delta strain that arrived at the start of filming and Australia is very strict, so it was restricted travel from state to state. (The producers) had to scuttle certain missions and rejigger some of the shooting. We were out there for nine weeks of filming and two weeks of quarantine upon arrival. That was psychologically a challenge – my “Mole” challenge (laughs). I tried to tell myself it was a welcome break from two little kids at home.
Would you do another season?
Let’s just get Season 1 on the air! I’m just trying to think about dinner, right now. I can’t go there yet.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alex Wagner on hosting MSNBC show and 'The Mole' revival on Netflix